Talk About Your Tough Sell

Tony Tomazic, the innovation director of integrated consumer experience at insurance giant Humana Inc., has a tough job: convince employees and customers that Humana cares deeply about humans. As he explained it at the Association of National Advertisers conference on integrated marketing last week, the task is to get employees and customers to embrace the company as an innovator in the field of health insurance; as a vehicle for change, a helping company. As he put it, that's a tough sell.

The insurance business, he said, "has a uniformly poor public image." To illustrate his point, he flashed a slide of three mean, old guys in suits. Heartless guys, the lot of them. Numbers crunchers. "Fat cats looking down on the people. Vampires, that's how they see us. We are third from the bottom in terms of consumer perception, after big oil and tobacco," he said.

Ouch. Talk about an uphill battle. And it doesn't help when the business is one that is particularly susceptible to hatred from both clients and physicians, or when titans of the business have to do the perp walk for $2.7 billion in accounting malfeasance.



"Innovation isn't a characteristic of our industry," said Tomazic. That, of course, depends on how you define the term. The industry spent tens of millions of dollars in 2003 on lobbying efforts to support innovations to Medicare prescription benefits.

But there are, as he pointed out, other serious perception problems with health insurance companies: one's dealings with them tend to be associated with sickness and death, not health. "Perfect service, it's a goal we have," he said. "What we are monitoring is net promoter scores, referrals, call center volume. efficiency, loyalty. Building a one to one relationship and an understanding of who they are. You can improve a product all day long but if you can't build relationship, it's only as good as the last transaction."

Tomazic explained that the Louisville, Ky.-based company last year launched an internal campaign, "Live Humana," to hammer home the point that it isn't in the numbers business, but in the business of caring about people. He showed a film of Humana's in-house morale-building program, meant to instill a sense of humanism in company staff, meant to give the feeling to all that people are people, not numbers.

The opening sequence doth protest too much: it showed, with eloquent simplicity, an array of serial numbers -- patient numbers -- formed and shuffled to form personal fact: hair color, size, and other personal traits.

"It's about transforming customers into people," said Tomazic. "It's about learning to engage consumers differently, to become more reactive to consumer desires."

Humana held a three-day conference for its executives, involving activities including improv theatrer games; speeches by empowerment coaches, motivation gurus and futurists; even NPR's StoryCorp. autobiography booths so people could tell their personal stories.

It's a good effort, but one might argue that it belies managed care's business model, which is kind of a null-service function: in contradistinction to, say, a car company or a restaurant, health insurance companies don't make money when people use their services, unless I'm missing something. My insurance company does not make it easy for me to get, say, open-heart surgery. They wouldn't be thrilled if I went for, say, a preventive colonoscopy.

Maybe a campaign like "Live Humana" then is really about boosting morale by manufacturing a feeling of team spirit and corporate virtue. And maybe getting people at the call center to act a little nicer when they explain the refusal-to-pay note.

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